Common Eye Contact Mistakes

Do you make these common eye contact mistakes?

Lisa B. Marshall
5-minute read
Episode #12

So How Do You Make it Better?

The key to good eye contact is preparation. You'll need to prepare ahead of time so that you’ll never have to look at your projected slides.

If you need notes to guide you through, then use a single sheet of paper –with big print—so that you can quickly glance at it and then return your gaze back to the audience before you speak. Or position your laptop so that it is in easy view in front of you. I always request a separate small table so that can I always see my laptop, even when I am walking around the stage.

Regarding the laser pointer -- try not to use it. If you know that you plan to point something out on your slides, then you should modify your graphics so that the highlights are already included. Insert brightly colored arrows, boxes, or circles; whatever you need to highlight the key information. I’ll admit it takes slightly more time to prepare but the payback is that your audience will know what to look at without having to wait for your laser light show. More importantly, you can keep your eyes on your audience.

Give yourself time to adjust to this technique, it takes practice, but really works well. Oh, and keep the laser pointer handy, just in case you need to do some unplanned pointing during the Q&A period.

Yes, Even the Curmudgeons Need Your Eye Contact

The second most common mistake is not giving everyone in your audience eye contact. Particularly at the beginning of a speech, many speakers are nervous so they tend to look for the expressive, reassuring faces in the crowd. Ones that are smiling and nodding, and encouraging. And that’s OK at the very beginning, especially if it relaxes you, but as you move through the speech you need to remember to include all the people in the audience. Including grumpy faces, frowning faces, and people with no expression at all.

I remember one time that I gave a presentation. There was one guy in the audience who appeared to be annoyed with me; never smiling, never encouraging, in fact, frowning at times. I knew he was a VIP, so at the end, I went up to the organizer and mentioned his reaction. She rolled her eyes and said, “Oh, him, he’s our resident curmudgeon. He never likes any of our speakers. But, he already came up to me and told me how great he thought you were. He wants us to invite you back!” I was astounded and more importantly it reinforced a very important lesson. Always include everyone with your eye contact, even people who appear to be responding negatively. Most importantly don’t let that hurt your confidence.

There is one caveat with this one. In today’s global workplace, it is also important to be respectful with your eye contact. If you notice someone looking uncomfortable or uneasy when you look at them, it’s best to just to move on to another face.

Up, Up and Away

Another common mistake that frequently occurs is also one that most people are unaware of. When we engage in normal conversation typically we maintain eye contact, except when we are planning our next words. Depending on your cultural background, you may look up and away, you may look down, or you may look to the side. Some psychologists think we do this because concentrating on a person’s face requires complex processing and by looking away we free up some processing space.

In casual conversation, this habit doesn’t negatively impact the communication. However, when making a presentation or participating in an interview, this behavior makes the speaker look unprepared and therefore somewhat disrespectful.   Unfortunately, for non-native speakers, this happens even more frequently.

So how do you solve this problem? Well, of course, practice helps reduce them amount of spontaneous word planning. It also helps to try to train yourself to look between people instead of up or down if you need to take a moment to plan your next words.

So there you have it, the top three common eye contact mistakes: looking at the projected slides, not including everyone, and looking away when word planning. Actually there are several other mistakes, but we’ll have to cover them in another episode.

This is Lisa B. Marshall. Passionate about communication, your success is my business.

If you have a question, send e-mail to publicspeaker@quickanddirtytips.com. For information about keynote speeches or workshops visit lisabmarshall.com.

Presentation image courtesy of Shutterstock


About the Author

Lisa B. Marshall

Lisa B. Marshall Lisa holds masters with duel degrees in interpersonal/intercultural communication and organizational communication. She’s the author of Smart Talk: The Public Speaker's Guide to Success in Every Situation, as well as Ace Your Interview, Powerful Presenter, and Expert Presenter. Her work has been featured in CBS Money Watch, Ragan.com, Woman's Day, Glamour, Cosmopolitan, and many others. Her institutional clients include Johns Hopkins Medicine, Harvard University, NY Academy of Science, University of Pennsylvania, Genentech, and Roche.